Julian Huppert MP writes…Let’s bring the “polluter pays” principle to government decision making

imageAll too often Government departments get decisions wrong. Most notorious are the Home Office and the Department of Work and Pensions. Many people will be well aware of the anguish faced by those awaiting Employment and Support Allowance appeals, and the same is true for those waiting to see if they can stay in the country, or bring in a spouse.

And many appeals are successful; Home Office statistics showed that 32% of deportation decisions and 49% of entry clearance applications were successfully appealed in 2012. Behind each percentage point stands an individual and perhaps a family who will have suffered delays and uncertainty – often because of a simple mistake. We should be doing everything in our power to ensure that decisions such as these are right first time round.

Now, you’d think that there would be a financial incentive to get it right, but currently, if an appeal is lodged, say against DWP on an ESA decision, it is the Ministry of Justice that picks up the tab. The department which made the error does not face the costs of the process. Knowing this makes it easier to understand why departments like Work & Pensions or the Home Office don’t invest to improving standards in their decision making; they don’t get the financial benefit from the improvements. And this is big money – Work Capability Assessment appeals alone cost almost £50 million a year to run.

I’ve been pushing the idea of ‘polluter pays’, where the relevant department pays the costs of appeals, rather than lumbering the Ministry of Justice with the bill. I think this would lead to better decision-making and lower costs, as well as more support for people who need it.  Today I raised the issue at Justice Questions with Simon Hughes who was very positive about it. Simon’s support may provide the momentum we need to get this taken up as a serious proposal in the MoJ. I would have thought that this would be welcomed by Chris Grayling, especially as it would provide substantial savings in the MoJ, and avoid the need for savings elsewhere.

The Crime and Criminal Justice Working Group, which I sit on, will hopefully be putting this and other radical proposals forward in our policy paper, but that doesn’t stop us starting now to make changes that would help people and help the Government.

* Julian Huppert was the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge from 2010-15

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  • Eddie Sammon 6th May '14 - 6:50pm

    I agree, but we need to be careful of throwing responsibility onto too few shoulders, which would be unintentional scapegoating.

  • Not a bad idea in principle – though you’d want to check that hard charging didn’t set up perverse incentives. For example, as the monopoly supplier, would you let MoJ set the fees? If so, what incentive would they have to drive efficiency? What would the cost of the bureaucracy be?

    It’s rather simplistic to say that the primary departments have no incentive to improve decision-making – they have the costs of making decisions multiple times, the cost of supporting an appeal, and the reputational costs of high overturn rates. Sometimes the policy is just too complex to support effective decision-making – and Parliament bears some of the responsibility for this.

  • Good idea, now can we extent it to Parliament, so if for example politicians get it into their head to spend on a vanity project that has no public support they reimburse the taxpayer?

  • Polluter pays is a great principle.
    Unfortunately if Julian looks across government it could be a bit embarrassing for Liberal Democrats.
    The current Secretary of State for Hinkley ‘C’ will be responsible for huge quantities of nuclear waste for which the government has no plans for safe disposal or storage. So how much will he have to pay?

  • Little Jackie Paper 6th May '14 - 8:34pm

    There is a decent point here, but I would make 3 observations.

    1) ‘Home Office statistics showed that 32% of deportation decisions and 49% of entry clearance applications were successfully appealed in 2012.’ I was amongst that 49%, but it would help to know exactly what that means. My appeal was essentially a small, technical point. Whilst it was a, ‘successful appeal,’ in the sense that the original decision was changed it was not a sort of full-blown court date type effort. I suspect that these stats are hiding some big qualitative differences. That might not be a bad thing in the sense that it may just be departments wanting full information. In terms of cost, the variances are, I suspect, large. In my case what I had was, de facto, a review just under the banner of appeal. Given that I’d be careful about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    2) Couldn’t this cut the other way and bring about greater charges on appelants for failed appeals? Again, this may or may not be a bad thing of course.

    3) As someone else has said, there are no shortages of examples where, frankly, systems have high appeal rates because there are too complex and too messy for their own good. Whilst complexity may have good reason behind it, it perhaps is exclusive to some extent with a fast, responsive system (particularly at a time of cuts). Politicians of all parties may like to think about their role here.

  • Richard Dean 6th May '14 - 9:04pm

    “Polluter pays” seems a very peculiar name for it, many people might think this is an environmental issue.

    Does the proposal imply that a pre-judgment is being made about who the “polluter” is. Or is it being suggested that whoever loses the appeal pays the other side’s costs?

    I wonder too if this has missed the point? Delay is a major stress factor in these situations, and is also costly, so I wonder whether work to reduce delays might be more important.

  • If the appeals are for “borderline” cases, as you would expect, then 32% to 49% seems a reasonable proportion for successful appeals.

  • Melanie Harvey 6th May '14 - 9:26pm

    Richard Dean, It is somewhat an environmental issue, as with those appeals comes paper and other resource use which is damaging to the environment not to mention peoples health.. adds burden to the already pushed NHS etc. stress being a large reason many take to prescription drugs and need their GP too, not to mention the costs of appealing etc on the person given many have to litigate themselves if on low budget. The people doing it wrong in the first place are not the one ending up with the paperclip bill !!

  • Nick T Nick Thornsby 6th May '14 - 10:28pm

    Interesting idea Julian, and certainly worthwhile for social security and immigration tribunal appeals.

    Are you proposing that it apply to judicial reviews of departmental decisions?

  • Chris Manners 6th May '14 - 11:04pm

    Naive in the extreme.

    These things aren’t there to be efficient. They’re there to make life uncomfortable for people.

    Chris Grayling hasn’t got the slightest interest, nor Iain Duncan Smith.

  • Jenny Barnes 7th May '14 - 8:53am

    I thought this was going to be about the (IMAO) absurd idea that unemployed people could be sanctioned for not accepting a zero hours contract. So, as I understand it, you either 1) accept a zero hours contract, potentially get no work or money, and starve to death or 2) you don’t accept the ZHC, lose your JSA, and starve to death. However, there’s some good news: that’s one less on the unemployment statistics. Surely the LDs in government can oppose this?

  • I suspect the reasons that mistakes occur in case work can be things like pressure, complexity of the system and lack of resources. Unless you have a plan to address those items, I am not sure that much will change

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